What could be better than a blog about Nick Cave and palm oil?

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What could be better than a blog about Nick Cave and palm oil?

Nothing, I hear you say.

I was humming along to the song ‘Red Right Hand’ the other night. I don’t know all of the lyrics and hence I hum a lot. One line that I do know the words to and that sticks in my mind is: “You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan; Designed and directed by his red right hand.” I looked up the meaning of this song, and along with rather cryptic descriptions of Milton’s Paradise Lost and conspiracy theories from The X-Files, there was the idea that the red right hand is a metaphor for a placebo – something that makes you feel better without actually making you better. This is the accusation often made against companies using GreenPalm in support of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO). But is GreenPalm a placebo, or does it actually make a difference?

© / Tim Laman / WWF-Canon© / Tim Laman / WWF-Canon

GreenPalm is one of four certification methods supported by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Also known as Book&Claim, it often gets labelled as greenwash. There are a broad range of views held by individuals, NGOs and companies about GreenPalm, and I do not wish to counter all of those views here. Ultimately we benefit from the diversity of views, because it tests us to think about what we really believe. What I would like to do is point out some of the benefits of GreenPalm, particularly in a market like Australia.

Bottom line, what most of us want to do is to stop the destruction of high conservation value forests and high carbon stock areas in tropical zones where oil palms are grown, like Indonesia and Malaysia. We want to stop the loss of species like orang-utans, tigers and elephants (and all the species that live in the ecosystem with them) by preserving their native habitat. We want people living in these areas to be treated fairly, and to benefit from the economic gains that palm oil can bring. In the diversity of views about palm oil, most people would agree on these things.

Palm oil can be produced sustainably. The RSPO sets out the Principles and Criteria for growing oil palm in a sustainable way. Palm oil is the most productive of vegetable oils, and if plantations are well placed and well managed it is the most sustainable choice among vegetable oils because it requires a smaller amount of land to grow than other vegetable oils do.

However, transitioning the market to sustainable palm oil, palm kernel oil and their derivatives is a complicated process. There isn’t a tap to switch on to change the market. We need to work with all links in the supply chain.


Where segregated and identity preserved palm oil is available, we should demand that manufacturers use it in products. They need to demand that their suppliers (often importers) provide it. This is where it gets tricky. CSPO needs to be fully segregated from unsustainable palm oil. Different port facilities, different containers in ships, segregated transport from the mill in to the factory. That’s a lot of segregation. And a lot of cost. Particularly if a company only requires a small quantity of a palm oil derivative.

Is it really sustainable to demand a separate ship to bring to Australia a small amount of palm oil? I was recently speaking to the owner of a small business that manufactures candles – no importer brings into Australia a certified sustainable version of the palm oil derivative they use, and because the volume required is so small no importer currently wants to start.

For situations such as this, companies can buy GreenPalm certificates in support of sustainable palm oil. One GreenPalm certificate represents one tonne of CSPO. A grower sells their certificates for CSPO on the GreenPalm trading platform or directly to a buyer, who could be in Australia or anywhere. The grower gets most of the money, and some goes to the RSPO and some to the GreenPalm trading platform. The grower can then sell the physical oil to whoever is available to buy it, including their own domestic markets. Sustainable palm oil certified to the RSPO standard has been produced, even if you are not buying the physical palm oil.

Does a GreenPalm certificate guarantee that you are eating products containing physical sustainable palm oil? No. Does it guarantee that your shampoo or detergent is deforestation free? No. But it does mean that a plantation somewhere is independently certified to be growing oil palm sustainably. That is a good thing. Because every GreenPalm certificate traded helps create a positive market transformation for palm oil. The impact of GreenPalm is being cast.

In the words of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: “A shadow is cast wherever he stands; Stacks of green paper in his red right hand.” Seriously, how did Nick know so much about GreenPalm back in 1994?


Darian McBain is Sustainable Palm Oil Manager for WWF-Australia

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